Archive for the ‘tradition’ Category

South West Bay, Malekula – Where pristine nature meets ancient traditions

September 21, 2010

Traditional-boy-near-waterfall-South-West-Bay-Malekula

A few posts ago I mentioned that  I got involved in helping some locals with the promotion of their regions as tourism destinations through my photographs.  In fact I not only ended up doing the photos, but also dished out quite a lot of advice, since the people on most islands of Vanuatu (besides two main ones – Vila and Santo), well they don’t have much of an idea of what foreigners actually want and their misconceptions could not be further from the truth. That is of course very understandable, since their culture and general approach to life could not be much more different from that of “white people” or most foreigners in general.

For the moment and likely for at least five years or more, most of outer islands of Vanuatu (as all the islands outside of Efate where the capital is located are called) are pretty darn far from being “real” tourist destinations. I mean this in the sense that they are not particularly suitable for those who want to relax in comfort, eat well, drink or party. Outside of about three major towns, there’s no electricity, running water is very uncommon and perhaps the most painful thing, at least for me, is that the locals, for most part could not care less about what they eat. There’s no food culture, which equals to no tasty local cuisine as you get in most places around Asia or elsewhere where there is a food culture.

All the minuses aside, Vanuatu offers something that few places offer these days and that is untouched, pristine and absolutely stunning nature. On top of that the people (the Ni-Vanutatu or Ni-Vans, as they call themselves) are some of the most charismatic, friendly and likeable on the planet. There’s also no hassle, no one attempts to sell you crap that you don’t need, no one tries to trick you or rip you off. As much as I love places like India, Nepal and Indonesia, it gets pretty annoying when people constantly see you as a money bag and come up with the most ridiculously creative ways of making you part with your money. You just don’t have that in Vanuatu, at least not yet.

Besides the already mentioned virtues, there’s of course the culture. As I also mentioned in a past post, the culture is undeniably disappearing, but it hasn’t disappeared yet, at least not everywhere. And while there are still places where you can experience this incredible culture in at least some shape or form, you have to go. In some very strange way it appears that the foreign interest in the culture of Vanuatu’s islands has made a lot of  Ni-Vans realize just how precious their culture is. At the end of the day, it may very well be tourism which will help ensure that not all is completely lost.

But let me now get specifically to South West Bay. It is one of two regions which I photographed with the aim of helping promote it. As you might have already gathered I am also ready to promote it through my blog and the internet in general, but that doesn’t mean that I’m simply going to sugar-coat everything. I’ll tell the truth, and in this case the truth is good enough to get people to come.

My idea to do this little project came after I met a good man by the name of George Thompson. George was born and grew up in the very remote South West Bay, Malekula. Through some visionary thoughts, hard work and twists of fate he was able to become the leading tour operator and the head of the tourism department  in his region. This role even gave George an opportunity to travel to Europe for a tourism expo in the late nineties. He saw places that very few Ni-Vans get to see – France, Germany, Denmark. While he loved the experience, travelling abroad made him realize that things back home were not as bad as some of his fellow countrymen had imagined. Sure, Vanuatu is a poor country by Western standards, but paradoxically there are no homeless people and no one begs for money or food. On top of that the air is fresh and the culture is rich.

When George got back, he had become even more inspired and passionate about showing off his region to the occasional tourists. By 2000 things were looking good, tourist numbers were slowly growing and  the income that tourism provided made people’s lives just a little easier. However, things in Vanuatu can change rather quickly. Corruption and “mismanagement” of funds at the higher level are common and around 2004 the nationwide tourism company “Island Safaris” the branch of which George led successfully in South West Bay went down due to “mismanagement”. Tourism numbers started to decline faster than they rose, without the support of a bigger company there was no way that George or the locals could market their region to the outside world. To add even more pain to the dilemma, the airport of South West Bay was sporadically closing and opening, thus making it harder for anyone to get to the area. In a couple of years there were virtually no tourists visiting South West Bay.

Because of George’s past friendships and connections he was able to get a good job, managing a small resort in Port Villa. He had a relatively easy life and a high salary, by Vanuatu standards. George worked at the resort for a couple of years, but soon he became haunted by the thoughts of home. He was away from his family and he knew that while he was having it easy, the people of South West Bay were struggling. He felt pain and guilt and before long he got back to South West Bay with the hopes of reviving the small, but once stable tourism industry that he helped build.

Fast forward to 2010 and things are not looking so bright. Over the past few years tourism has still been near non-existent. Instead of helping bring up the lifestyle of others, George found himself in a similar situation as them. He didn’t tell me his story when I met him, he’s not the kind of person to whine or complain about life, that doesn’t seem to be part of the Ni-Van mentality in general. Instead I got all of this information out of him during the two weeks that I spent in the area, this of course made me even more motivated to help the man in at least some way.

The particular idea about me making some photos came after George showed me some of the past photos of the places in his region sent to him by tourists. According to his stories, the places were beautiful and the people in those places fascinating and so when I saw images that were let’s say not very inspiring I felt a little uninspired myself. I know that I’m not the only one who gets excited about a place by seeing a single beautiful image of it and so with that thought in mind I suggested that we create a little tourism marketing campaign. The campaign would be a combination of documentary images of some of the more photogenic activities, places in the region, as well as some set up shots of the locals dressed in their traditional costumes in their beautiful surroundings.

For me personally the shoots were a reward in themselves. I have been shooting documentary stuff for years and I’m always interested to be placed into new photogenic situations. As far as the set up shots, it was in a sense even more fun to do them. I’d made a couple of short fiction films while at uni and photo shoots of this sort, while fairly new to me were in a some ways similar to making short films. In this case you could say that the shoots were a blend of fiction and documentary (the line was very thin). Our “actors” had to be themselves, they simply had to be in specific locations, wearing costumes which they used to wear in the past and still wear during celebrations  or as was customary for the chiefs and some village members while greeting visitors (i.e. tourists). The dances, which are a big thing in the region are performed in similar outfits, (usually more elaborate) so all in all the images we created showed what was most visually exciting about the region of South West Bay and something that the visitors would get a chance to see themselves.

And so let me get to the photos. This is a just a portion of the images I created, you can see more HERE and in the coming months. The image at the top is of one of the boys (Pillison was his name)  who I had seen performing the kastom dance at a pig killing ceremony a couple of days earlier. I wanted to photograph him in a similar costume in front of the waterfall, one of the hidden little gems of the area.

Boys-in-a-canoe-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Pillison was a great model so we got him and his little mate into a canoe and asked them to row along the shoreline a little. For full impact, I expect this or a variation of this image to be shown in a bigger medium than the 450 pixel photo on a blog. You can get a better view by clicking on the image (to make it larger). Mountains and sea always look dramatic to me and more so when they’re bigger.

Chief-Ayar-in-the-bush-South-West-Bay-Malekula

This is Chief Ayar again. I blogged about him HERE. I took quite a few shots of this fascinating man. I expect that some of them will be used in something like a brochure, while I’d like to use others, like this one along with images that make up a story, which, if things work out will hopefully appear in some of Vanuatu’s tourism magazines.

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A moment from the pig-killing ceremony. During my stay in South West Bay, two chiefs “upgraded” their ranks. Two pigs were killed and meat was shared with the villagers.

kastom-dance-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Every pig killing is preceded by a traditional or kastom dance. Only certain individuals are allowed to take part. The young are once again being taught the steps of the dances as part of a cultural revival in South West Bay.

Ancient-burial-site-Melmes-South-West-Bay-Malekula

For those who like hiking, there’s a fascinating hike to the creepy ancient burial site in the hills above the village of Melmes. The guide, a young chief by the name of John was very passionate in telling us about the history of his people. Below those skulls is a mass burial hole, but before the bodies were placed there they were put onto a high rock. Because John’s tribe thought that they descended from the eagle, they had a little custom associated with this bird. They believed that if the eagle were to eat the eyes of the dead body (when it was placed on the high rock), that person would go directly to paradise, if not, well they go to hell. When I asked John whether many of the dead actually had they’re eyes eaten and went to Paradise, he replied with an uneasy smile – “No, most of our ancestors went to hell.”

Weaving-mats-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Mat-weaving is one of the women’s main occupations. They weave mats for home as well as for sale in big towns like Port Villa in order to generate a small income that usually contributes to the ridiculously high school fees they must pay for their children each year.

The-baker-of-Wintua-village-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Another documentary image taken inside of the village bakery. The baker is cleaning out the ash before putting the bread inside the oven. Once I am home, near a fast connection I’ll try to post some video that I did in this very atmospheric little spot.

Old-chief-South-West-Bay-Malekula

George’s uncle is one of the highest chiefs in South West Bay, people like him are an “attraction” in their own right, they are living history and chatting to folks like that is always a highlight of any trip. George’s uncle (his name escapes me, it was a long traditional name, not a Western one) had never had a white man in his house before, so he felt a little nervous when I came to photograph him there. He still had reservations about white people in general because in his youth the presence of a white man was usually bad news. He signed to me that they used to kill the locals by making the cutting of a neck gesture with his hand.

My presence I was sure left him pretty puzzled. I was using the off camera flash in a soft box, which meant that I’d click the button on the camera and the flash would go off (away from the camera). George later confirmed that the flash was indeed a source of bewilderment and amusement as his uncle told fellow elders “This white man came to take my picture. He pressed the button in one place and then this bright light would go off in another place! He’d talk to his woman, she’d press something on the thing that makes the light and then the same thing would happen again, over and over!”

The-coastline-South-West-Bay-Malekula

South West Bay is stunningly beautiful. I am not a landscape photographer, but even I was seduced by the scenery of dramatic, red, cliffs and greenery lining the shore. There are much more scenes for the landscape photographer and if I was one of them I’d probably stay even longer.

Boy-in-Canoe-South-West-Bay-Malekula

More beautiful nature  (click the image for larger size) and another youngster in a canoe. This is in fact a lagoon about a half hour’s walk from George’s house. Beautiful place, warm people and you only have to dip the net in for a few minutes before you catch fish. Once the traditional owner of this area builds a thatched bungalow, this will be a great place to spend a couple of days.

Trees-at-sunset-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Just a few hundred meters from the lagoon, you come to this place, which made me feel a little like I was in a forest in Europe. The setting sun made for a perfect lighting scenario and I couldn’t resist making a couple of exposures.

Some final words: For those who are into photography and interested in visiting Vanuatu there are some good news. Through working with me George learned a good bit about what sort of stuff more serious photographers might be interested in. In other words he knows that we don’t like cheesy pictures of kids giving us the thumbs up (very common in Vanuatu) or people standing with their hands by their sides like soldiers before a march. He also understands that sometimes real life is the most fascinating subject of all, so he can help the photographers get access to shoot stuff like that.

I might be doing a workshop in Vanuatu at some stage and if I do there will only ever be one. However for the more independent minded or more advanced photographers, I highly recommend you to get over to South West Bay and to let George show you around. I’ve only scratched the surface here. There’s reportedly a great reef for those who love shooting underwater (I had left my housing near the airport not knowing this) you can go on a wild pig hunt with a couple of dudes with bush knives and a pack of dogs. There are more traditional villages and fascinating elders in the mountains and some folks shoot river fish with bows and arrows.

Oh and did I mention that the whole thing will be extremely affordable, especially by Vanuatu standards? Whatever you pay will go directly to the community, there are no middle-man organizations (as is often the case when you do things through bigger companies). I don’t get anything out of it apart from satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone.  I’ll post more on the prices and the possibilities at a later stage, but if anyone is already interested, feel free  to contact me via this blog or the email on my website.

Greetings from the Holy Land!

January 19, 2010

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Hi folks, it’s been a long time since my last post and in case you’re thinking that I’ve been buried somewhere in the snows of cold Belarus, you’re wrong. 🙂

I’m actually in Israel. It’s not a random trip, I’ve had family living here for a while and it was time for a way overdue visit. I won’t get into all the personal details, but rather keep it photography related. A couple of days back I’ve managed to do something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while – go back to Jerusalem.

I visited the “Holy City” in the past, when I was about 13 (with my parents). As a teenager, I was raised  on Christian beliefs and was familiar enough with the Bible to know the significance of Jerusalem. Even back then it felt special.

These days I’m not attached to any religion, but having been exposed to other faiths and life-experiences, I can appreciate the city more than ever before. In reality it’s hard not to appreciate Jerusalem. The old town’s ancient architecture, labyrinth-like streets, bustling markets and hordes of devotees of all races, colours and faiths make it a city like no other on Earth. The closest thing I’ve experienced to Jerusalem was travelling through the old cities of Rajasthan, India, but even they don’t match Jerusalem’s incredible diversity.

I spent most of my time around the famous symbols of the world’s dominant religions – the Church of Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall and the Golden Dome Mosque. That’s where the images you see here are from.

Mine and Tanya’s stay was made much more special thanks to meeting a talented photographer and a super nice dude named – Sasson Haviv. I got in touch with him on the photography site 1X.com a while back and after I randomly emailed him and told him that I was gonna be in Jerusalem, Sasson was all too happy to meet and hang out. He helped me gain an insider’s view, which is something I treasure whenever I go somewhere new. You can check out some of Sasson’s images right HERE.

priest-in-door An Ethiopian priest enters “The Church of the Holy Sepulchre”. The church became one of the favourite photographic places I’ve been in. There’s a lot happening, there’s a great variety of faces, the light is different in different places and at different times of the day. You can just sit in one spot, people-watch and wait for something photo-worthy to happen.

blessingA priest blesses a devotee. I shot this image at the same spot as the photo above, but a bit later on in the day and obviously from a different angle. It’s possible to spend weeks here.

nunsTwo Orthodox nuns absorbing a passage from the Bible. Still the same area, but the opposite side by the entrance to the church.

priestA Greek Orthodox priest changes oil in the lamps above the stone-plate where Jesus’ body is said to have been prepared for burial.

the-tomb-of-chirstA  crowd of devotees around the Holy Sepulchre / The Tomb of Christ. There seems to always be a crowd around it. As holy as the place may be, this is where I saw the less magical side of the church. The person in charge of directing the crowd, usually a monk would tell everyone when it’s time to get out . He’d commonly say – “Hey, come on, you don’t get one hour here, move on!” He would also knock back those who try to squeeze-in without waiting in line. I saw an elderly Russian couple say “Can you please let us through, we are pilgrims.” The answer – “Guess, what? Everyone’s a pilgrim here, get in line!” At one stage the crowd started to get out of control and the monk started screaming almost uncontrollably for them to get back, I guess it was time for desperation.

girl-and-candlesJust by the tomb  is where I continuously saw Russian tourists/pilgrims obsessively burn the fuses of candles which they had bought in the church or brought with them (such is the tradition and it makes the candles blessed in a way). They would buy whole bags of them and would greedily burn the candle-fuses, one bunch after another. Well, at least that gave me a chance to get some shots.

worshippersDevotees praying at the “Wailing Wall”. I have to admit, I know relatively little about Judaism, perhaps that was one of the main reasons I felt less comfortable  shooting at the wall. Ok, that and the fact that thousands of tourists photograph these same people here every day, thus annoying the heck out of the them. There’s about a 50/50 percent chance that you’ll be asked to stop. It’s a tricky situation, because when you see someone in a moment of religious ecstasy, doing the “decent” thing and asking is not necessarily an option. If I had more time, I would come back and do what Sasson does – make friends with some of the worshippers and get their consent before shooting in a more intimate way.

knowledgeThere’s no shortage of knowledge by the Wailing Wall. In the undercover area to the left religious books are aplenty and you always see someone looking for something or putting a book back on the shelf.

girl-soldiersFemale soldiers rehearsing for “the end of army service” ceremony by the “Wailing Wall”. The sight of women in army uniforms and with guns is quite unusual for most people around the world, but it’s just an everyday occurrence in Israel. When I came across the scene I couldn’t resist shooting quite a few frames. It is funny that despite such seemingly serious duty, the girls (who are all probably in very early 20s) joked around, made bored faces, occasionally made faces at me and one even stuck out her butt for the camera.

religionandsecularThere is the ever-present contrast of the religious and the secular in Jerusalem.

view-from-above View of Jerusalem from the side of the Golden Dome Mosque.

mosqueMorning around the Golden Dome Mosque.

marketAt the market by Old Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

breadmakersThanks to Sasson we were able to get into this bakery after-hours and take some photos of these two Palestinian brothers at work. They were real nice guys. After we finished shooting, we were offered some of the sweetest tea I’ve ever drank, not necessarily a good thing, but a a sign of the famous Middle-Eastern hospitality Sasson told me about.

smokersIn this place Palestinian men enjoy a smoke of their pipes and play cards. I was quickly told that some of the older, more classy pipes cost as much as 2500 Euros. One of the guys collected them and said that when he smokes his expensive pipe the experience is as great as being with a beautiful woman.

That’s all from me for now. I’ll be flying back to Belarus in a couple of days, I hear it might be –30C by then! Aaah!!!

Holbav – a trip into the past

November 23, 2009

holbavI finally got a chance to shoot what I wanted, the way I wanted in a small Transylvanian village called Holbav. That’s where the photo of me in the oxen cart was taken (last post).

Though Holbav is only about 20km away from Brasov (the region’s largest city) it is a world away in terms of everything else.  Not much would have changed here over the last 100 years or so. Incredibly, there is still no electricity, no running water and none of the other comforts taken for granted in the “modern” Europe. In other words in many ways the village is representative of what a lot of Romania must have been like a long while ago. This is exactly what I wanted to photograph.

My time in Holbav, though very short, was intense. There are times when I want to limit what I know about a place. I think not knowing helps me to be open to only the positive aspects and to concentrate purely on my photography. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case here.

It’s a long story not worth getting into on the blog, but the bottom line is, I found out too much. That the place is not perfect, that life there is hard and the hardships sometimes have a negative impact on people, naturally. Though my experience was 99% great, being aware of the brute, savage and cruel qualities that occasionally come out of the local population was not something I wanted.

In any case, here are some images from this fascinating village.

hay-collectingDominicu collecting hay, which had been drying for a couple of weeks prior.

tony-workin Tony packing hay for winter storage.

oxen Ioan and his oxen. Apparently they are pretty old. Ioan used voice commands and beat the crap out of them to get the desired results. It was often a pitiful scene, which is better communicated through video, which I also made, but cannot share until I reach a fast internet connection.

old-man I don’t remember this old gentleman’s name, though I met him twice. He was a lovely fellow, but sure looked like he was drinking a lot, the second time I saw him.

kerosene-lampNo electricity means that kerosene lamps. replace light-bulbs. Here Ioan hangs the lamp on one of the few hooks that exist around his house.

Next stop – Maramures – supposedly it’s a photographer’s paradise in many ways. We’ll see. 🙂

Incredible Romania!

November 17, 2009

me-in-cart

First: The eBook sale is over. Thanks to everyone who purchased them, the response was a very pleasant surprise. To those who missed out – I may have another special some time down the line, so check the blog for details.

I’ve been in Romania for about a week. A lot of strong first impressions, but the recurring themes are awe and frustration.

I can’t think of many other places with such photogenic faces and landscapes, that’s the good part.  The frustrating part is that I really haven’t done any meaningful photography since I’ve been here. Language and shitty weather have been my biggest obstacles. While I was in Sibiu, one of Romania’s prettiest towns, the cloudy skies and flat light sucked out almost all of the town’s beauty. The clouds also hid the snow peaks of the mountains, I didn’t even know they existed, until the skies cleared a little on my way to Brasov, another picturesque Romanian town.

Finally my inability to speak Romanian has made it next to impossible to communicate in villages, the places where my ideal subjects live, where I want to do most of my shooting.

So far the trip has been much more about getting a feel for the country than anything else. I’m trying to see whether this is a place I’d like to return to, to dig deep and attempt to capture imagery, which I am sure one cannot find in too many other places on the planet. So far I haven’t seen enough, but I have been teased by getting a glimpse of potentially amazing scenarios and looking at the work of a couple of Romanian photographers.

One is Vlad Dumitrescu, a talented young photographer friend I met on OneX and later in person.  I’m actually typing this entry from his apartment. You can see his images HERE. The other is someone Vlad introduced me to – Sorin Onisor. I think he has become one of my new favorite photographers and his images have brought me to the verge of madness, thinking about the amazing photo opportunities that exist here. You can see Sorin’s work HERE. Doesn’t seem like the English version works, but the pictures are what matters, so do yourselves a favor and look at Romania through the eyes of someone who really understands this country.

I had some car trouble recently, but after forking out one fourth of the car’s cost to replace the clutch I am set to go spend some time in a small countryside village, one of very few non-commercialized villages here in Transylvania. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, hopefully  I can come up with something interesting and put up something more than the image you see of me at the top of the cart (taken by Vlad).

Ok folks, back soon.

Braslavschina – The most amazing place you’ve never heard of

September 28, 2009

Lake

I have just returned from Braslavschina – the region around the town of Braslav and as I mentioned in my last post, all of my expectations have been surpassed. There are plenty of old, traditional villages, wonderful, photogenic people and there are over 400 lakes – almost all of them ridiculously picturesque.

Perhaps it’s some sub-conscious thing about this region being a part of my “motherland”, but Braslavschina has quickly become one of my favorite places in the world. All I need to be happy is – something to photograph, some place to swim and some nice people to chat to. 🙂 I can find all of that here, plus the kind of nature, which I only thought existed in fairy tales.

Ok, so I’ve fallen in love with this place, I really mean it. I’ve even enquired about prices of land and simple houses here and I have  found out that they are ridiculously cheap, at least by Western standards. If I find something suitable, I’ll soon have my own tiny piece of paradise, perhaps even one right on a lake.

Anyway, enough dreaming. Here’s a brief look at what I’ve seen so far. I’m in Minsk for a few days to sort out some paperwork on my newly bought ‘84 Volskwagen Golf II. It ain’t pretty, but it’s cheap, it’ll take me where I want and it’s mine. I’ll be coming back to Braslavschina as soon as I can. I’ve only scratched the surface, as far as photography goes.

Cow-herders-fieldTolik and Vatsik – two cow herders taking a break. It seems like I’ve got this strange attraction to cattle herders and fishermen, wherever I go. More on fishermen in the near future.

HerderTolik herding cows with a whip.

Grandma-at-tableAbove and below are images of kind elderly ladies from two different villages with the same story. In the really traditional villages there isn’t much youth these days and the old are the living, walking, breathing embodiment of the incredible history of this area.Babulya- -Cat

Church A prayer inside a church of the “Old Russian Orthodox” faith. It’s very similar to the “standard” Russian Orthodox religion, but all the prayer’s are written in ancient Russian and read accordingly. Only two people in this village can read them – this “Father” is one of them. The “Old Russian Orthodox” faith is almost extinct in Belarus. The three ladies in the background are basically the only attendees.

Batyushka-Port Father Akim (a very unusual name for Belarus) on his way out of the church.

milkmanEvery morning this man waits by the side of the road to sell is milk to large government-run co-operatives. Here he is returning home after selling the milk.

DedulyaGrandpa Alexei was very shy about being photographed. When it comes to photos initial shyness is a common reaction amongst most of the older people. They’ll usually say something along these lines – “Why would you want to photograph me? I’m not shaven” or “I haven’t even got my teeth”. To me however these faces are amazing, they say so much without the need for words. After a short chat and me explaining what I do everyone usually agrees to have their picture taken.

chainsaw-cutterThe modern way of preparing firewood – with a chainsaw.  The man – Vasily is one the few younger men choosing to live his life in the countryside. He does however work outside of his village, on construction sites in cities as large and as far as Moscow.

PastuxiBack to the cow herders – Tolik and Vatsik having their dinner by the fire. I won’t mention what they were drinking.

VovaVova is another rare find, he is the only young man in his village. The rest have moved out and now live and work in Belarus’ larger cities.  Photographically speaking this is the sort of portrait I am enjoying shooting more and more these days – a shot where the person is surrounded by objects that tell you something about his her life/culture.

Ok, that’s all for now. Needless to say, I can’t wait to go back and shoot some more stuff. I have also filmed some interviews and some scenes that are best communicated through “moving pictures”, but unfortunately my ancient laptop isn’t powerful enough to edit HD video. Well, I guess that’ll all have to wait.

Madurai

March 3, 2009

madurai-prayer-011From Kanyakumari it is a 250 km ride to Madurai. We’ve made it…barely. After over 10,000 km on the road over the past three months, our bodies are aching in places we didn’t know could ache. The two-wheeled machine which has been transporting us all this time is “exhausted” too. It experienced another “major injury” – another crack right through the middle of its chasis on the way to Madurai, but somehow we managed to pull through to our destination.
madurai-market-02madurai-market-01 Madurai is a fascinating city. My short time here would not do it any justice. However, I decided to at least have a peek at it, rather than to simply pass it by. Parts of the city are particularly photogenic. The fruit and vegetable market inside the city is as bustling and challenging to photograph as the fish market in Kollam. I came to this place every morning, I suppose more to absorb the atmosphere than to create any compelling images. Later in the mornings I’d go to the temple, the most famous temple in all of south India and arguably the finest example of Dravidian architecture – the Sri Menakshi. To my huge disappointment there was restoration work being done to the Sri Menakshi during my visit. Its giant, elaborately decorated towers were covered with faded, dry palm leaves. I was left only with post card images of what it looked like and my imagination of how it may look after the restoration.
madrurai-temple-011 Thankfully the inside of the vast temple grounds was very much intact and buzzing with religious activity. I have a strange feeling in Hindu temples; it is as if I am both – a complete alien and totally at home there. All the rituals, the hundreds queuing up for darshan (blessing) or prashad (blessed food) and bowing to the Gods carved out of stone; on the surface none of it makes much sense to someone like me. I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, in fact I’d say I’m anti-religious at times, but the essence behind every religion is very human and when I think of that, I, as a human being can connect with it. I feel that behind the multitude of layers, the rituals at Hindu temples or for that matter any sites of worship, stand two universal factors – misery and hope. Misery and hope go hand in hand in and around the Sri Menakshi Temple. A poor farmer’s family spends the night on the pavement by a make-shift fire, a deformed man begs for money, a newly-wed couple makes an offering and the fat businessman who has “made it” bows down to the Shiva statue – there is a degree of hope and misery that drives all of these people. They plead for a better life, money, happiness, forgiveness and they all hope that they will be heard by the divine. There isn’t an individual in the world that doesn’t suffer or hope. And as for surrendering to the divine, if it’s not God that a person looks to, it’s love, work, alcohol, drugs. The essence remains the same, only the layers around it change. Knowing this makes me feel at ease about the blanks in my knowledge of Hinduism. I can fill in those blanks. What makes me comfortable is the fact that those in the temple are humans, before they are anything else. Their actions are a manifestation of their cultural upbringing, but these actions are driven by the same misery and hope that I and every other human feel.
We spent three days in Madurai. Our next stop is Bangalore. How we have to get there is another story.

Last Days in Kerala

February 24, 2009

alumkadavu-boatman-01Let me paint you a mental picture – it’s early in the morning on Munro Island, the village street is still quite, golden light shines on the greenery that’s abundant everywhere you look and a water canal flows to the right of the road. By the same road is a group of little schoolboys, one of them is urinating, facing away from the road. Suddenly he notices Tanya and I pass by on the motorcycle and turns around, without zipping up his pants or finishing his ‘business’ he screams “Hello! School Pen!munro-fishermanWe decided to spend our last few days in Kerala photographing things that you can only see in this state – the backwaters, the boatmen, the sand collectors (see image below). Munro Island was a pretty ideal location. It is beautiful, that is no secret and it’s that beauty that attracts countless houseboat tourists and spreads the “Hello, school-pen, chocolate, rupee!” disease among the island’s population.The incident described above is ridiculous and that’s what I think of the whole thing, it’s ridiculous and stupid beyond words. Even the adults murmured those dreadful words, encouraging those I photographed to demand a pen, chocolate or money for being photographed. To the defense of the people in my images, none of them asked me for anything. They really were as dignified as I hope they look in the images.alumkadavu-coconuts-01The negatives aside Munro Island is a special part of Kerala that is hard to resist. Here you can still see people living unhurried, traditional lives. There are no roads through the middle of the island, instead the canals are the island’s highways and the only practical way to get from place to place, you constantly see men and occasionally women getting around in small boats. Our highlight on the island was hiring a boat from a village family and going about by ourselves. Judging by the astonished looks on local people’s faces it seems that no foreign visitors ever do this, but we loved exploring and learning this particular boat riding technique. In Kerala’s backwaters people don’t usually paddle with oars, as the waters are rather shallow they have a long piece of bamboo which is used to push off from the ground under water. We got one oar and one long piece of bamboo. After some trial and error Tanya took over the role of the navigator and used the piece of bamboo to push off and change direction when needed. I paddled with the oar and looked for potential photos.The atmosphere on Munro Island is very peaceful and laid back, at least it’s like that along the canals. Different story near the roads, where I saw and heard something that absolutely shocked, puzzled and horrified me – loudspeakers on trees and electricity poles. Every day the loudspeakers blasted out some insane tune, so loud that it crackled from distortion. Why would anyone want this in “paradise”? I guess, it’s just another Kerala mystery.munro-island-sand-collectorsmunro-sand-collector-02Alumkadavu, the magical place by the lake which I wrote about in one of my past posts was our last stop in Kerala. We liked it so much the first time that we decided to go back for a day, but, well, the magic was sucked out of it this time around. Why? LOUDSPEAKERS! Thankfully they weren’t on trees, but what we heard was bad enough – 24 hours of temple music so loud that we could hear it as if it was at full volume in our own room, and it was actually on the other side of the lake. We came back to this village to absorb the peaceful vibes and to get some photos of people fishing on the lake. Neither happened, but I did get a few images of one of the “public ferry” boatman over a few rides with him (image at the top of the post). He was a nice guy and a hard worker, who didn’t mind me snapping away and occasionally rocking the boat, he was too agile to care. He’d walk right along the edge from the font to the back of the boat and vice-versa.

I am now writing from Tamil Nadu, a state that shares its’ border with Kerala. So, “What will I remember about God’s Own Country?”. Well, it is remarkably beautiful and full of colorful, ancient traditions that are very much a part of people’s lives today. These people are mostly gentle and kind, and dignified, but I guess I’ll hear “School-pen, chocolate, rupee!” in my nightmares for some time to come, probably accompanied by temple music playing at full blast from a loudspeaker on a tree.

Photos:

Top to bottom:

– Boatman of a public “ferry”, Alumkadavu

– A fisherman with his morning catch at a small fish market, near Munro Island

– Coconut loading. We were riding around Alumkadavu at sunset, looking for something interesting to photograph and found these men loading coconuts into a truck. They were a bit surprised, in a pleasant way, the man on the right opened up one of the coconuts and gifted it to me.

– Sand collecting, Munro Island. Seems like this is a big industry in Kerala. I saw these guys working while we were on our way back from our boat ride. You can’t really get a decent shot from the boat, nor can you get it from the shore, so I went chest deep into the water. The workers cracked up with laughter, but continued their job. I shot a few frames. The next image is from their boat, it’s worth exploring different angles if you have a chance.

The Little Tea-Shack at the end of “Beach Road”

February 23, 2009

kollam-teashop-ownersportDuring one of our days in Kollam we wanted to find out where the “Beach Road” led to, so we decided to ride it south, as long as it followed the shoreline. After passing a couple of fishing villages and beaches we came to a corner, there the road branched off inland. A small shack stood on that corner, smoke was coming out of its windows and people with tea glasses stood outside. Having come to the end of the “Beach Road” and not having any desire to head back to our room, we got off the motorbike and went into the smoky shack. Inside I found one of my favorite photographic places in Kerala.

The shack was a small eatery that served basic food and tea to fishermen and other village folk. There are countless numbers of such tea-shacks all around India, but this particular one caught my eye. The blue wall, with everything on it was like a tapestry that told a short story about the place and the people who live there. Anyone who’s been to South Kerala will recognize the symbols of the state in the photograph at the top of the post. The ‘subjects’, the owners of the tea-shack – Manuel and Anitha Sebastian are husband and wife; they are Catholic Indians, of whom there seems to be a lot along the coastline of South Kerala.

I made three visits to the tea-shack; I would go there later in the morning, after photographing fishermen by the sea. The top image was taken during my last time there, in the first two I couldn’t get the couple together; one or the other would always be busy with customers or in the kitchen. Despite not really being able to speak to each other, sign language and some familiar words helped me explain that I wanted to take some photos. Manuel and Anitha found me rather amusing. They thought it was really funny, or crazy (in which case they masked shock with laughter) when I photographed them through the window which expelled the smoke from their cooking. It was one of these cases where photography seemed to brighten up people’s mundane, daily routine and they gladly welcomed me into their lives, for a brief moment in time.

Customers kept coming in and out of the shack. After it was known what I was doing inside, it seemed that some came with the hopes that they too would be photographed. Here are some more images from the “Little Tea-Shack at the end of the Beach Road”.

Man-at-teashackOne early Sunday morning I realized that no one goes to work on Sundays, no fishermen would be going out to the sea. Since I had already gotten up early I headed off to the tea-shack in hopes of catching some customers having tea there. This gentleman had just come from church and was reading the news with a glass of tea in his hand. I asked if I could photograph him, he smiled and agreed. Initially he stared directly into the camera, but I asked him to look a little to the side, to make the portrait more casual.

kollam-teashop-cookingAnitha cooking parothas, while Manuel prepares them. Manuel managed to communicate to me that everyday they go through 400 parothas, no small task for a tiny place like theirs. This was taken through the window that sporadically expelled smoke from the cooking fire.

kollam-tea-shopManuel pauses while making parothas.

The rest of the images are pretty self explanatory. All were taken with natural, light that came from the sides, through the windows.

kollam-tea-shop-group

kollam-tea-makingkollam-teashop-sadhu